With its towering peaks, verdant forests, rocky shoreline and crystalline lakes, Washington state is an outdoor lover’s dream.
The northwestern-most corner of the continental USA features not one but three incredible U.S. national parks, each unique in landscape and less than 250 kilometers from the urban bustle of Seattle. To experience the majesty of Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park, all you need is five days and a car, which you can rent in downtown Seattle or at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Home Base: Seattle
Cool, quirky and adventurous, Seattle makes an excellent starting point for a Pacific Northwest adventure. The birthplace of Starbucks coffee and grunge music offers an eclectic array of delicious restaurants, boutique shops and buzzing nightlife spots. With so many opportunities to hike, bike, ski and boat within a stone’s throw of downtown, you’ll find plenty of locals who share your love of the great outdoors (and who can offer lots of advice on how to enjoy them).
A stunning evening view of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline
Day 1: Mount Rainier National Park
The snowcapped peak towering above the Seattle skyline is the crown jewel of Mount Rainier National Park, just 145 kilometers southwest of the city. Despite being an active volcano, the nearly 4,400-meter-high Mount Rainier is adorned by 25 glaciers, allowing those who summit in the warmer months the sensation of hiking through two different seasons. As well as mimicking winter all year-round, the glaciers feed six different rivers, making this national park a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking. If you can, visit the park in the spring to catch sight of the vibrant wildflowers in full bloom.
Hiking a trail on a sunny afternoon in Mount Rainier National Park
Days 2 and 3: North Cascades National Park
Less than 200 kilometers northeast of Seattle, North Cascades National Park beckons to hikers with more than 600 kilometers of trails. You can opt for a scenic stroll through the mountain-framed valleys or put your legs to work on paths that lead to views of the park’s more than 300 glaciers. You’ll want to come prepared with several layers of clothing — not to mention sturdy hiking shoes — as temperatures can change as you climb in altitude. Because there is so much ground to cover (nearly 277,000 hectares), we recommend spending a couple of days here. The park features five campgrounds that can accommodate cars and RVs, three additional campgrounds accessible by boat and 140 backcountry campsites.
Backpacking along the snowy peaks of the Cascade Range
Days 4 and 5: Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park encompasses its fair share of mountains, lakes and rivers, which are definitely worth a day of exploration. But after four days among Washington’s peaks, devote some time to the park’s other notable landscape: the coast. About 240 kilometers west of Seattle, the park’s Pacific coastline is dotted with rock formations rising dramatically out of the sand. You can devote a full day to the park’s tide pools, which are filled with fascinating creatures such as rock crabs and sea snails that you can see during low tide. (Just be sure not to disturb the wildlife here — touching or removing tide pool critters can affect the ecosystem.) Olympic National Park is home to numerous campgrounds, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a place to spend the night.
Crossing a footbridge while backpacking in Olympic National Park